Cone 10's small gallery space on Morrison Drive houses a mosaic of original clay pottery, from delicate and functional to chunky and funky: Miyako Fujiwara's Japanese teaware, Jason Luck's heirloom whiskey jugs, Anne John's elegant white vases, Holly Benton's highly textured house sculptures, and the gorgeous dinnerware crafted by CBFB Tablescapes, the collective work of Chris Burr and Fiorenzo Berardozzi that is featured on the tables of Husk and McCrady's.
Studio co-owner Anne John loves working with clay. "You can feel it grow under your fingers as you work," she says. "What begins soft and plastic becomes strong and hard. I love that whole process." Originally from Massachusetts, she was introduced to clay first as a child and then through a college class that rekindled her interest.
Jason Luck is a sixth-generation potter from Seagrove, N.C. In addition to heirloom pottery, he creates face jugs. In a unique blend of heirloom and high-tech, some jugs are decorated in binary code.
"Clay does not attract jerks, they do not last," he says. "I started at 10. I was probably 18 before I felt decent at it."
Bethany Knox says new potters need patience. "There's lots of disappointment." Knox's father owns a Southern Pottery Gallery in Columbia, and she's worked with Midlands master Peter Lenzo to learn the craft.
"We all have different approaches," says John. "For instance, it's cool to use the clay's weak points advantageously. Holly Benton does that. She embraces what most are afraid to do." She adds with a smile, "I'm functional; she's funky."
Benton says, "I like working with clay because you can add and take away. Other sculpture materials, like wood, are only subtractive."
Pottery requires practice, patience, and a trained hand. Someone who does not mind getting their clothes or hands dirty — and has short fingernails.
Whether the clay is white porcelain or red stoneware, it must be pounded on a wedging board before it hits the wheel. This gets the bubbles out and softens the clay up a little. The wheel is moistened and pressure is applied to get the clay to cling to the wheel.
Throwing requires a lot of dexterity and serious focus. Foot pressure spins the wheel via pedal, while hand and finger pressure shapes the spinning clay form. The potter moves his hands up the sides of the clay to form a cone. Then one palm helps flatten the top, while the other smooths the sides. A thumb burrows down to the base, stopping about half an inch from the bottom to avoid puncturing the clay. The thumb also smooths the inner bottom base. Four fingers are used to expand the burrowing hole by gently pulling outward. Then, with thumbs overlapping, the middle fingers of each hand thin and smooth the walls.
Applying too much pressure creates weak spots. If the top lip is thicker than the supporting walls, the form will collapse. With each motion, the potter's hands dry and rough up the clay's surface, so they must be repeatedly re-soaked. Once the throwing is done, a trimmer tool pares down the base and lip of a pot, and it is set on a shelf to dry for three to six days.
Just like a pot needs a strong base and walls, a studio needs resilience to survive in spite of funding, membership, and location changes. Cone 10 grew out of the former Clayworks, which was founded by Susan Filley in 2000. It moved from a shotgun space with fluorescent lighting on Meeting Street to a former car dealership on Morrison Drive with plenty of natural light and space to spread out.
The members give back by teaching classes, manning the gallery, recycling the clay, and making glazes. Many people are interested in learning the craft or joining, but there are only so many trained pros available to teach and mentor. Right now, there's a waiting list to join.
The centerpiece of the studio is its kiln, a massive oven that can reach temperatures hot enough to melt your face. Cone 10 is named after sets of numbered, heat-sensing devices that melt at specific temperatures as the kiln heats up. Cone 10, for example, melts between 2360 and 2380 degrees Fahrenheit. But before the kiln starts firing, heavy slab shelves, which take two people to move, must be placed inside the oven. About 40 pots can be fired per session, a process that takes three to four days.
Once a bowl has dried, it is ready for bisque firing. The cone set is placed in view of the spyhole. The kiln is closed, fired at a very low setting, and allowed to gradually heat up overnight. Oxygen is kept out of the kiln, so the fire feeds off the oxygen in the clay. The next day, the temperature is checked every 30 minutes or so. Cones are not needed until late in the firing process.
The hazards during firing are legion. Bubbles in a pot's wall could burst and ruin the entire batch. If the kiln is opened too soon, the pots can crack from the abrupt change in temperature. If pots touch during firing, they will meld together. But once pots get through that first firing, it gets a little easier. The pot is now ready for glazing.
Glazes are made from a combination of silica (glass), an adhesion material, and pigment color powders with elemental names like barium, copper oxide, cobalt, and iron oxide. Hand-mixed in five-pound buckets, the glaze is brushed on pottery. Pieces can also be dipped, inside and out, but never on the bottom because it would stick to the kiln and break. Glazes are determined by the cone grade of the clay and whether the piece will be used for eating or drinking. Once the glaze sets, colors that looked dull before firing finally reveal their rich colors.
At Cone 10, shelves along the walls are populated with works in progress, from raw clay in cellophane bags to drying pots, vases, plates, and bowls in different stages. Each potter may be on their own journey, but they are never too busy to help a fellow potter in theirs. Collaborations extend beyond the studio's walls.
John, a volunteer at Crisis Ministries, organized an Empty Bowls event at the studio last year. The idea, based on a national fundraiser, is to raise money to fight hunger by hosting a simple dinner served in a handcrafted bowl. Guests get to break bread with their community, raise money for the needy, and take home a meaningful memento. The symbolism of Empty Bowls tends to resonate with people.
"When we decided to do Empty Bowls, we all pitched in" says Fiorenzo Berardozzi. "Seven people threw bowls for four hours. Then we trimmed, glazed, and fired them. It's not just the cause, it encompasses teamwork. We believe in a community of potters."
For Brad Cashman at Crisis Ministries, Empty Bowls was eye-opening. "The first event raised $4,000. It showed how much impact a community of potters can make. It's huge to see that happen."
This year's Empty Bowls has taken more than a month of preparation. At the dinner, donors will enter through the gallery and take a bowl. In the workroom, Cerasoli and Berardozzi will be waiting to fill their bowls with hearty soup and some bread. At the end of the night, each person will leave with their bowl as an enduring reminder of the event, the people, and the cause.
The Empty Bowls fundraiser will be held at Cone 10 Studio on Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. Tickets cost $42 and should be purchased in advance. Bring cash or check for silent auction pieces. All funds will go directly to Crisis Ministries.